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social sciences

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United Kingdom II: 1900 to the Present  
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Like some other publicly visible lesbian women of the era, Allen and Lowther revealed their lesbianism by incorporating male signifiers into their public personas, including short, cropped hair, a monocle, and a police uniform worn on all occasions. In appropriating these stereotypically male elements, lesbians affirmed their sexuality by acting out the implications of the conception of homosexuality as the inversion of biological gender. Working-class women who adopted more thorough male drag in an effort to enlist in the armed forces were arrested and often imprisoned.

Policing Queer Desire in the Interwar Years

By the 1920s, many queer men had congregated in London, Birmingham, Glasgow, and other major metropolitan centers. In these cities, local authorities consistently emphasized their dedication to enforcing laws against homosexual offenses, but the level and intensity of surveillance of homosexual acts fluctuated. Patterns of policing in London have been studied in greatest detail, but they correspond generally with trends throughout the United Kingdom.

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In London between 1922 and 1927, over eighty men were arrested per year for homosexual solicitation, but arrests dropped to fifteen in 1928 and ten in 1929. The notable decrease in arrests probably was a consequence of the resolution of the case brought against national war hero Frank Champain, arrested in a public urinal in London in 1927. After a widely publicized trial, Champain was acquitted because the jury was disgusted with the methods that the police had used to entrap him. For the next two years, Metropolitan Police were reluctant to engage in surveillance of public urinals and other cruising spots.

Angered by the decline in cases against homosexuals, moral crusader and eugenicist Mrs. Neville-Rolfe instituted a public campaign that encouraged the police to reinstitute surveillance of homosexual activities. As a result, there were 113 arrests for homosexual acts in London in 1930, and there continued to be a similarly high number of arrests for the remainder of the decade.

Police efforts tended to be concentrated primarily on certain locations and on certain types of individuals. In the interwar years, over half of the arrests in London for homosexual acts were made in just nine public urinals in the West End. Social class was a factor, as working-class men were more likely to be arrested than men of middle and upper classes. In particular, police focused their attention primarily on effeminate men.

Moving to London in 1931, Quentin Crisp (1908-1999) was one of the working-class men who challenged rigorous gender conventions by adopting effeminate manners, hennaed hair, lipstick, and unconventional clothing. Supporting himself through a variety of jobs (illustrator and commercial artist, tap-dance teacher, and prostitute), he often hung out with friends at the Black Cat on Compton Street in Soho, a cafe that tolerated camp young men. However, outside this supportive environment, he was often subject to abuse. Crisp's experiences became widely known through his autobiography, Confessions of a Naked Civil Servant, published in 1968.

Awareness of police "blind spots" undoubtedly served to encourage middle-class queer men to cultivate a conventionally masculine public persona to avoid detection. Within certain sophisticated upper-class circles (for instance, at the universities at Oxford and Cambridge), a degree of tolerance was extended to homosexuality as long as it was kept implicit and not visibly expressed.

Despite the potential dangers of arrest by police and of "poof rorting" (queer bashing), many men of all social classes found sexual encounters in latrines and "cottages" (public washrooms) exciting. To protect themselves against arrest, men developed a complex system of coded gestures and phrases, and they collaborated in shielding sexual acts from view by patrolling washroom entrances and other means. Open spaces, such as Hyde Park and Hampstead Heath in London, also served as major centers of queer public life. Although police made significant efforts to reduce homosexual activity in these open spaces, men generally were able to elude detection by retreating into secluded areas, especially at night.

Those who could afford to do so took advantage of tearooms, taverns, nightclubs, and other commercial establishments that catered primarily to homosexual clients. In the Criterion in Piccadilly and other bars that were recognized as gay friendly, many men flirted and chatted with others. Among other establishments, the Lyon's Coventry Street Corner House was particularly famous throughout Britain as a welcoming venue.

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